Poisoned: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Poisoned by Jennifer DonnellyYou think you know this tale, but you only know what you’ve been told. You may have heard about the girl named Sophie with lips the color of ripe cherries, skin as soft as new-fallen snow, and hair as dark as midnight. You may have heard about her step-mother and the huntsman.

That doesn’t mean you know the real villain of this tale or anything that happened after the huntsman cut out Sophie’s heart.

In a world where power means safety and, for a young girl destined to rule, there is no greater danger than mercy, Sophie will soon learn that surviving–much like hiding–isn’t enough if she wants to reclaim her kingdom in Poisoned (2020) by Jennifer Donnelly.

Find it on Bookshop.

Poisoned is a feminist retelling of the fairy tale of Snow White that is every bit as bloody and gory as the original version transcribed by the Brothers Grimm. Although the story is stepped in violence from the very first chapter, the narrative itself often reads younger hewing closer to middle grade in tone.

Eerie, fast-paced chapters and an unconventional choice in both narrator and antagonist make this story unexpected even as Donnelly stays true to her source material. Sophie is an admirable heroine struggling to reconcile her ruthless upbringing with the kindness she has managed to nurture in her heart.

Poisoned is an ideal choice for anyone who prefers the classic fairy tales to modern, more sanitized versions–a fast-paced story that is both engaging and fierce.

Possible Pairings: Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust, Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C. Dao, Stain by A. G. Howard, The Traitor’s Game by Jennifer A. Nielsen, Stealing Snow by Danielle Paige, Everland by Wendy Spinale, Hunted by Meagan Spooner, Kingdom of Ash and Briars by Hannah West

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

Skyhunter: A Review

Skyhunter by Marie LuThe country of Mara is fighting a losing war against the Karensa Federation and its superior technology harnessed from the Early Ones–a fallen civilization readers will readily recognize in our present one.

Mara was supposed to be a safe haven for Talin and her mother. Instead refugees are kept outside the city walls and Talin’s status as an elite Striker can’t make some see her as anything more than a “Basean rat” who Marans look down on for little more than her skin color and the shape of her eyes.

As a Striker on the warfront Talin fights Ghosts–humans who have been horrifically re-engineered by the Federation to become monsters intent only on killing. When Talin saves a mysterious prisoner of war she may have also found the key to beating the Federation–but first she has to decide if the prisoner is a potential weapon or an ally in Skyhunter (2020) by Marie Lu.

Find it on Bookshop.

This post-apocalyptic, sci-fi adventure is a visceral exploration of the emotional and physical costs of war. Poison gas scarred Talin’s vocal chords leaving her unable to speak as much from the trauma as the injury; she instead communicates with the sign language used by Strikers.

Talin’s narration is caustic as questions of allegiance and loyalty move the plot forward with Talin and her friends struggling to save a country that offered Talin refuge while withholding common decency–a dichotomy she again has to struggle with while deciding if the enemy prisoner she has rescued is someone to be saved or something to be exploited.

At the cliffhanger end of Skyhunter Mara’s fate is far from secure leaving readers to wait for answers in the conclusion to this duology. Suspense and high-action fights make this plot-driven story both fast-paced and brutal.

Possible Pairings: The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, Defy the Stars by Claudia Gray, Birthmarked by Caragh M. O’Brien, War Girls by Tochi Onyebuchi, The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson, Scythe by Neal Shusterman, Uglies by Scott Westerfeld

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in an issue of School Library Journal*

The Midnight Lie: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“We had been taught not to want more than we had. I realized that wanting is a kind of power even if you don’t get what you want. Wanting illuminates everything you need, and how the world has failed you.”

“Wanting something doesn’t always mean it is owed to you.”

The Midnight Lie by Marie RutkoskiNirrim’s life in Herath is a prolonged exercise in survival. She is used to having little. She is used to keeping secrets. She has Raven who is almost like a mother. She has friends. She has the knowledge that she helps people even if it is dangerous.

It is the way it has always been. It has always been enough. Until the day Nirrim makes a terrible mistake. Arrested and jailed, Nirrim could be charged any tithe the authorities choose–her hair, her blood, something much harder to part with.

In prison Nirrim encounters Sid, a mysterious thief with a brash manner and numerous secrets. Speaking with Sid across the dark prison, Nirrim begins to wonder if things really do have to stay the way they are or if, perhaps, they can be changed.

As Nirrim and Sid search for answers about the secrets of the High Kith and Herath itself, Nirrim will have to decide if doing more than surviving is worth the risk–and the cost in The Midnight Lie (2020) by Marie Rutkoski.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Midnight Lie is the first book in a duology. It is set in the same world as Rutkoski’s Winner’s Curse trilogy.

As the title suggests, this book is full of lies both that Nirrim tells to other characters (and even readers) as well as the lies she tells herself to reconcile the privation and struggles she has endured to survive. After years of wanting nothing, because wanting is dangerous, Sid blows Nirrim’s small world apart and forces Nirrim to confront her wants and desires for the first time.

Lyrical, dreamlike prose lends a fairytale sensibility to this otherwise grim tale as both Nirrim and Sid face increasingly risky stakes in their search for answers. As an outsider with wealth and an air of mystery, Sid operates with a certain level of freedom and safety–things Nirrim has never even dreamed of–which lead to thoughtful discussions of privilege and power dynamics between the two characters. Sid’s gender identity and presentation therein also add another layer to the story.

The chemistry between Nirrim and Sid is palpable–especially in flirty dialog that adds needed levity to this story. The final act will leave readers with more questions than answers as secrets are revealed and decisions are made for better or worse.

The Midnight Lie is a meditative exploration of the power of memory and desire as well as presentation. Fans of this tense, sexy story will be eager to see what comes next in the conclusion to this series.

Possible Pairings: Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust, Race the Sands by Sarah Beth Durst, The Once and Future Witches by Alix E. Harrow, For a Muse of Fire by Heidi Heilig, Forest of Souls by Lori M. Lee, Furyborn by Claire Legrand, Birthmarked by Caragh M. O’Brien, Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor

When We Vanished: A Review

When We Vanished by Alanna PetersonAndi Lin and her mother are doing everything they can to keep anyone from finding out that her father’s new job is actually participating in a clinical trial at the food corporation Nutrexo.

After Andi hears executives whispering about a dangerous research study at a company party, she worries it might be the same study her dad is involved with–especially since she hasn’t heard from him in over a week. When Andi asks her neighbor Cyrus Mirzapour to help, they wind up in over their heads when a nonviolent protest ends with a bombing and both of them being held captive alongside Cyrus’s older brother, Naveed and younger sister, Roya.

Trapped and desperate to discover the truth and save themselves, Andi and Cyrus find themselves at the center of a conspiracy with consequences that are hard to imagine–and closer to home than either of them realize in When We Vanished (2020) by Alanna Peterson.

Find it on Bookshop.

When We Vanished is Peterson’s debut novel and the start of her Call of the Crow quartet. The book is published by Peterson’s newly created publishing company Rootcity Press which, as their website states, “operates on a not-for-profit model, and donates a portion of all proceeds to grassroots-based organizations focused on racial justice and food equity”

As such, this eco-thriller works to raise awareness about the dangers of fast/processed foods and genetically modified foods some of which can be seen on the book’s companion site Nutrexo Truth.

Unfortunately in sharing these timely messages Peterson’s novel highlights graphic scenes of animal cruelty with “EcoCows” kept in unsanitary and inhumane conditions at Nutrexo and scenes of torture when Naveed is sprayed with a noxious pesticide as part of the villain’s continued experiments leaving him with lasting nerve damage.

While these scenes viscerally showcase the dangers of modifying foods, particularly the increased spread of antibiotic resistant infections, the violence that will stay with readers far longer than the message.

When We Vanished is an unflinching eco-thriller best suited to readers comfortable with gore and grit.

*A more condensed version of this review appeared in an issue of School Library Journal*

Spindle and Dagger: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

Spindle and Dagger by J. Anderson CoatsWales, 1109: When Elen’s home was raided by a warband three years ago her younger sister died in the ensuing fires. Her older sister was cut down just short of killing the warband’s leader, Owain ap Cadwgan. Despite the violence and her own sexual assault, Elen survived, healing Owain ap Cadwgan’s wounds and weaving a tale of protection.

She tells all who will listen that Owain ap Cadwgan cannot be killed–not by blade, blow, or poison–so long as Saint Elen protects him, so long as he keeps her namesake by his side.

None of what she tells them is true.

Balanced on a knife’s edge and haunted by echoes of the raid that killed her family, Elen knows one false step, one accident could leave Owain dead and render her own life forfeit.

When Owain abducts Nest, the wife of a Norman lord, and her children, war soon follows. As her lies begin to unravel, Elen dares to imagine a different life but first she will have to determine where her loyalties lie in Spindle and Dagger (2020) by J. Anderson Coats.

Find it on Bookshop.

Elen’s first person narration is frank and immediately engrossing, drawing readers into the precarious world she has created for herself. With violence and danger everywhere, Elen is forced to be as calculating and as ruthless as the warband that is both her greatest protection and her greatest danger.

High action and battles contrast sharply with the choices Elen is forced to make to ensure her own survival. Coats’ evocative prose and themes of agency and feminism add nuance and depth to this otherwise fast-paced story.

Spindle and Dagger is brutal, bloody, and carefully researched historical fiction. Recommended for readers looking for fierce heroines and history with all the gory details.

Possible Pairings: Damsel by Elana K. Arnold, The Smoke Thieves by Sally Green, Sweet Black Waves by Kristina Perez, Kingdom of Ash and Briars by Hannah West, The Guinevere Deception by Kiersten White

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

One Dark Throne: A Review

One Dark Throne by Kendare BlakeTriplets Katherine, Mirabella, and Arsinoe are in the thick of their Ascension Year, the time when all three have to fight until only one is left alive to claim the title of queen and rule Fennbirn Island.

After the disastrous events of the Quickening, Katherine is stronger than ever–far from the sickly, weak Poisoner everyone expected at the start of the year. But what really happened on top of the Breccia Domain? And will it be enough to help her get both the crown and revenge?

Arsinoe never expected to survive the Ascension Year, not as a Naturalist with no powers to speak of and no familiar. That was before Arsinoe steeped herself in low magic and understood the secret of her true power. But will one secret be enough to change her fate?

Mirabella is arguably still the strongest sister. The temple supports her, her Elemental powers give her control over all elements. She could beat her sisters and claim the crown. But she’s no longer sure that is the future she wants.

Once again it all comes down to three sisters and, most importantly, one crown in One Dark Throne (2017) by Kendare Blake.

Find it on Bookshop.

One Dark Throne is the second book in Blake’s Three Dark Crowns series which begins with Three Dark Crowns. The book follows sisters Katharine, Mirabella, and Arsinoe in close third person narration with additional chapters focusing on those closest to them.

Blake continues to expand the world of Fennbirn Island as the fight for the crown escalates. The expected in-fighting, betrayals, and suspense make One Dark Throne a page turner despite its length.

The fast pace is an interesting contrast to a closer focus on the sisters’ motivations as they all struggle to make it through the Ascension Year. While Arsinoe and Mirabella are drawn together, reluctant to fight their sisters, Katherine is set further apart after her return from the Breccia Domain. This incident also highlights the pointed difference between the triplets’ upbringing where Arsinoe and Mirabella had the advantage and support of actual friends and family growing up while Katharine had poison.

One Dark Throne is an intense, action-packed installment. Higher stakes, bigger consequences, and more twists make this book a must read for fans of the series.

Possible Pairings: Girl, Serpent, Thorn by Melissa Bashardoust, The Scorpion Rules by Erin Bow, Graceling by Kristin Cashore, The Gilded Wolves by Roshani Chokshi, The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco, Rule by Ellen Goodlett, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, Finnikin of the Rock by Melina Marchetta, A Confusion of Princes by Garth Nix, Four Dead Queens by Astrid Scholte, A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab, The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater, The Girl King by Mimi Yu

The Night Country: A Review

*The Night Country is a sequel to Albert’s debut novel The Hazel Wood–be sure to start there to get the full story and avoid spoilers*

“We were predators set loose in a world not made to withstand us. Until the summer we became prey.”

The Night Country by Melissa AlbertIt’s been two years since Alice Proserpine fought her way out of the Hinterland and the fairytale she inhabited there with help from Ellery Finch–the boy who chose to explore other worlds instead of returning with Alice to New York City.

Being an ex-story isn’t easy even in a city like New York where strangeness already lurks on every corner. At first it seems like Alice might really be able to reinvent herself with a new, human life. But something is happening to the Hinterland survivors who made it out–something that’s leaving them dead.

While Alice tries to track down the culprit, Ellery has to try to find his own way out of the Hinterland before there’s nothing left.

Everyone knows how a fairy tale is supposed to end but as Alice and Ellery search for answers and a way home, they soon realize that their tales are far from over and may not end happily in The Night Country (2020) by Melissa Albert.

Find it on Bookshop.

The Night Country is a sequel to Albert’s debut novel The Hazel Wood–be sure to start there to get the full story and avoid spoilers. Alice’s pragmatic first person narration contrasts well with third person chapters following Ellery as he tries to find his way home and, possibly, back to Alice.

While Alice spent most of The Hazel Wood trying to understand who she was, The Night Country focuses on Alice’s struggle to decide who she wants to be now that she is free to shape her own story.

The Night Country is a suspenseful story of loss, hope, and searching. This fairytale noir adventure blends romance and mystery with plenty of action as Alice struggles to stop a conspiracy with ramifications she can barely imagine. A must read for fans of portal fantasies, mysteries, and readers who prefer their magic with bloody sharp edges.

Possible Pairings: The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo, The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty, Caster by Elsie Chapman, Into the Crooked Place by Alexandra Christo, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones, The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow, Sender Unknown by Sallie Lowenstein, Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs, An Enchantment of Ravens by Margaret Rogerson, The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V. E. Schwab, The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater, Realm of Ruins by Hannah West, The Light Between Worlds by Laura E. Weymouth

*A more condensed version of this review appeared as a starred review in the November 2019 issue of School Library Journal*

War Girls: A Review

cover art for War Girls by Tochi OnyebuchiSisters Onyii and Ify find themselves on opposing sides in a brutal civil war in this Afrofuturist adventure set in 2172 Nigeria that draws on the history of the Biafran War (also known as the Nigerian Civil War) of the 1960s which began when the Eastern Region of Nigeria declared itself the Republic of Biafra.

Onyebuchi sets this story against the backdrop of a futuristic world filled with sleek technology and brutal war machinery including bionic modifications for child soldiers and mechanized battle suits as both Onyii and Ify are pushed far beyond their limits as their loyalties are tested and they are forced to determine the value of their personal integrity in War Girls (2019) by Tochi Onyebuchi.

Find it on Bookshop.

The shifting narration follows Onyii and Ify as well as other characters they both meet as they try to find their way back to each other, and themselves, during the war and in the tenuous peace that follows. The sense of happenstance or destiny that continues to bring Onyii and Ify together underscores the arbitrary nature of war and the costs that are paid by everyone in the line of fire.

Intense action scenes contrast sharply against an incisive criticism of the costs of senseless battle and the story’s commentary on the powerful bonds that tie family together for better or worse. Onyebuchi’s stark, close third person narrative further emphasizes this story’s brutal setting.

War Girls is bleak but compulsively readable story with high action and high drama in equal measure. Onyebuchi’s world building and characterization are top notch in this completely immersive but deeply unsettling story. I’ve been describing War Girls as exemplary Afrofuturism for readers who also want to ugly cry and be sad forever—with high speed chases. Make of that what you will.

Possible Pairings: The Weight of Stars by K. Ancrum, Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi, Invictus by Ryan Graudin, Skyhunter by Marie Lu, Ignite the Stars by Maura Milan, Metaltown by Kristen Simmons, Hullmetal Girls by Emily Skrutskie, Pacific Rim

*A more condensed version of this review was published in an issue of School Library Journal*

Into the Crooked Place: A Review

When it comes to magic, all that really matters is timing. If you have that right, you can perform wondrous feats or the slickest con and it won’t matter because people will still line up to buy whatever it is you’re selling.

Tavia has made a name for herself as a busker in Creije selling low level dark magic and performing high level cons. After years of staying very close to the line and watching her friend Wesley cross right over it, Tavia wants to leave Creije before she is forced to do something she can’t take back.

Wesley will do whatever it takes to bring order to the chaotic streets of Creije even if he has to fashion himself into a gangster no one wants to look at closely enough to recognize his past as a boy desperate to move beyond a lean life on the streets.

Tavia is content marking time before she can wash her hands of Creije for good until one of her cons goes terribly wrong. Instead of duping a rich mark with fake magic, Tavia’s friend takes some very dark and very lethal magic.

With new magic circulating through Creije for the first time in decades everyone is on edge. As enemies circle and alliances are tested, Tavia and Wesley might be the only ones who can stop the conflict they’ve set in motion. That is, if they can bear to trust each other in Into the Crooked Place (2019) by Alexandra Christo.

Into the Crooked Place is Christo’s sophomore novel and the start of her new gangster fantasy duology.

The story plays out against an atmospheric, noir inspired world filled with political corruption and dark horse protagonists including Wesley and Tavia as well as the novel’s other principal characters Saxony and Karam. Potentially rich world building is diminished by breakneck pacing and action that leaves little room for explanation.

Elements of suspense and adventure come together as Tavia and Wesley approach the mystery of the new magic from opposite sides to try and make sense of this  development that could potentially destroy Creije. Alternating viewpoints and shifting story lines clutter more than they clarify with extraneous details.

Into the Crooked Place is an engrossing if sometimes superficial fantasy. Recommended for readers who can prioritize sleek one liners over a sleek plot.

Possible Pairings: The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert, Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo, White Cat by Holly Black, Caster by Elsie Chapman, Ace of Shades by Amanda Foody, Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones, There Will Come a Darkness by Katy Rose Pool, Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter, Four Dead Queens by Astrid Scholte

*An advance copy of this title was provided by the publisher for review consideration*

Damsel: A Chick Lit Wednesday Review

“For so it had been throughout his people’s memory, that a dragon and a damsel made a king.”

cover art for Damsel by Elana K. ArnoldWhen Ama awakens she has no clothes, no memories. She is wrapped in a blanket, being carried by a man she doesn’t recognize. Even her name will come later—a gift from the man who saved her.

Emory is quick to tell Ama about his bravery and cunning when he conquered the dragon. He is eager to describe her beauty and the way their destinies are now tied together. He cannot, or will not, help Ama understand her life before the dragon and her rescue.

Coming to the kingdom of Harding is supposed to be the end of the story. But as Ama begins to explore this new kingdom and poke at the old legends of the damsels and the dragons, she begins to realize that her rescue is only the beginning of this tale in Damsel (2018) by Elana K. Arnold.

Arnold’s latest standalone novel is part fantasy and part feminist manifesto. Most of the story plays out in the kingdom of Harding–a grim little world filled with casual violence and brutality including graphic hunting scenes as well as a rape scene that leaves nothing to the imagination. The sense of danger is only further amplified by Arnold’s carefully restrained prose.

Damsel‘s plot is not always subtle as Ama tries to understand her past as well as her future. Her agency is systematically stripped away throughout the novel until it feels to readers, and to Ama herself, as if there is nothing left to lose.

Ama’s limited point of view and flat world building reminiscent of a fairy tale create a stark backdrop for this exploration of female agency and toxic masculinity. Damsel is a sparse, character-driven story with a very firm focus on its heroine. Arnold’s prose is deliberate as the novel works toward a logical if abrupt conclusion.

Damsel is not for the faint of heart. Recommended for readers who sympathize more with the dragon than the knight.

Possible Pairings: The Last Namsara by Kristen Ciccarelli, Spindle and Dagger by J. Anderson Coats, Strange Grace by Tessa Gratton, The Smoke Thieves by Sally Green, Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers, Sawkill Girls by Claire Legrand, The Wren Hunt by Mary Watson